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31 Oct Future Ready Grading Practices: A Standards-Based Mindset

By Adam Dyche, Social Studies Dept. Chair, Waubonsie Valley High School (Indian Prairie School District 204)

We’re already, very much, on the way to new, modernized curricular goals, and assessment & instructional strategies. It’s now time that our grading practices catch-up with these changes.

The focus on maximizing personalized learning through the use of educational technology, while fostering college and career readiness with the sound design of inquiry and project-based curriculum, our schools—and experiences for our learners—are embracing a future ready mindset.

Unfortunately, what’s been left out of this movement is our grading practices, which have not evolved in over a century. Instead, they’ve been left to perilously prop up these transformative changes to teaching and learning.

“Grades Are so Imprecise”

For the entirety of schooling, student grades have been based on assessment methods with everything going into the grade book regardless of purpose or when it was collected, while often mixing student achievement with student effort and behavior. Robert Marzano agrees: “Grades are so imprecise they are almost meaningless.”

But grades aren’t meaningless, especially for students and parents. For them, they have been the single most identifiable reporting tool used to communicate learning.

With everything we do, we aim for our students to develop curiosity, push themselves, and embrace growth & learning.

21st Century Grading Practices

But, if grades are to have communicative value to students and parents, then grades must clearly communicate our intent. But what is our intent? As we become more future ready, developing new frameworks to teach our students 21st skills, the more our reporting must align with these aims.

Consider the list of beliefs and values below. Which are true for you? Do your grading practices measure, report and communicate this to students and parents?

  • I believe all students can learn and succeed.
  • I believe some students take longer to learn than others.
  • I value life-long learning and curiosity.
  • I value learning and growth over points and grades.
  • I want my students to be courageous & push themselves.
  • I know relationships matter.
  • I believe student confidence leads to ongoing success.
  • I want to cultivate society not reflect it.
We can neutralize the negative effects of traditional letter grades & systems by developing a standards-based mindset.

As Alfie Kohn reported, In The Case Against Grades, there are three consistent effects of traditional grading in our schools.

  • Grades tend to reduce students’ interest in the learning itself.
  • Grades tend to reduce students’ preference for challenging tasks.
  • Grades tend to reduce the quality of students’ thinking.

The research has also been quite clear that practices such as averaging, assigning zeroes, mixing achievement with behavior and, most recently, relying solely on computerized gradebooks have negative effects on student learning.

A Standards-Based Mindset: From the Classroom Up

Unfortunately, in many of our schools, the constructs of traditional grading that foster these negative practices cannot be changed at the teacher level. However, as Tom Schimmer writes, “developing a standards-based mindset allows teachers to begin reshaping the grading experience in their classrooms without the premature pressure of a new grading program, a new grading policy, or a new report card template.”

So, what is a standards-based mindset? Simply, it’s changing how you think about grading. It’s adopting practices that allow teachers to make immediate changes to the culture of grade determination. Below is a list of some of those practices. Which can you start doing today?

  • Avoid using ‘points’ as markers for achievement. Rather develop descriptive grading criteria for what a letter grade means.
  • If we want students to get better, determine what activities are in the “Learning Zone” and only give feedback, not grades, on these activities.
  • Use the “Logic Rule” when considering final grades. This means consider and focus on the most recent evidence of learning.
  • Give multiple opportunities to show learning through reassessment.
  • Don’t pair an academic consequence with a behavioral misstep. Such practices have no educational value and adversely affect students, teachers and the relationship they share.

As Michael Lewis wrote in Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, “If you challenge conventional wisdom, you will find ways to do things much better than they are currently done.” We’ve made improvements in instruction, curriculum and assessment. It’s now time we find better ways to determine grades.

To learn about one school’s journey to a standards-based grading system, click here!

Adam Dyche has been teaching social studies education at the high school level for 17 years, with six of those years serving as Department Chair. He has been involved with grading reform since 2010, is an active member of the Standards-Based Grading / Learning community, and has presented on healthy grading practices to high school teachers in Indian Prairie District 204, and 6-12 teachers in Kaneland School District 302. Connect with Adam on twitter by following @mrdyche or via email at: adyche@gmail.com.

standards-based mindset

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